I was once a programme manager on a huge, traditionally managed, “waterfall” programme. At a certain point in the project, our go-live date was slipping by one month every month. Like greyhounds chasing a mechanical hare, no matter how fast we ran, we never got closer to the prize. Two years’ later, we did go live. But, man, did we waste a lot of time with fancy plans in the process.

Like dog racing tracks, those big beast waterfall programmes are slowly dying a death. However, it’s still easy for us to believe that “plans get implemented”. Of course, sometimes they do, but mainly something else emerges.

Complexity theorist Ralph Stacey has a concept of the plan as a gesture. He emphasises how the meaning of our plans actually emerges outside of them, “in local interactions.” The handed down plan isn’t so much as a set of instructions that will be followed but in reality more of a conversation piece. If we were more honest about this reality when it comes to plans in a corporate setting, we’d waste less time. We’d spend less time getting bogged down in the often illusory validity of the details of these plans and more time having meaningful conversations. We could focus more on asking key questions to expose our reality. Take for example the three questions from complexity thinker Glenda Eoyang:

  • What? (I.e. what do we know of our current reality?)
  • So what? (I.e. what meaning can we make of it?)
  • Now what? (I.e. what’s the next best action to take?)

I ask you, what if we considered our plans as just gestures?

To watch Professor Stacey talk more about this, click here.

If you want to take a deeper dive into the complexity themes in this article, check out our podcasts with Professor Stacey’s longtime collaborator Chris Mowles here, and with Glenda Eoygang here.

** To get your free copy of our complexity primer, click here **